Monday, April 2, 2012

Book Review: The Wicked and the Just by J. Anderson Coats

The Wicked and the Just
by J. Anderson Coats
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
April 17, 2012
352 pages 
Source: ARC courtesy of DAC ARC Tours

Cecily’s father has ruined her life. He’s moving them to occupied Wales, where the king needs good strong Englishmen to keep down the vicious Welshmen. At least Cecily will finally be the lady of the house. 

Gwenhwyfar knows all about that house. Once she dreamed of being the lady there herself, until the English destroyed the lives of everyone she knows. Now she must wait hand and foot on this bratty English girl. 

While Cecily struggles to find her place amongst the snobby English landowners, Gwenhwyfar struggles just to survive. And outside the city walls, tensions are rising ever higher—until finally they must reach the breaking point.(Taken from Goodreads.)
Opening Line:

"Tonight at supper, over capon and relish, my father ruined my life."

My Take On It

And so begins one of the more interesting stories I have read this year. First off, The Wicked and the Just wasn't what I was expecting it would be. I knew it was historical fiction, and that it was a period of history, the conflict between the English and the Welsh during the 13th century, that I knew little about. But this book really sucked me in. Told from the point of view of an English girl, Cecily, and a Welsh girl, Gwenhwyfar (I'll use her Anglicized name from the book: Gwenny), The Wicked and the Just throws the reader into the middle of a harsh and brutal world that I am so very thankful I never had to experience. So thankful that I never had make the choices that Cecily and Gwenny are forced to make. SO unbelievably thankful that I have never had to make the sacrifices that those two girls make on a daily basis. I'm way too soft, I wouldn't have lasted long in 13th century Wales I fear.

First off, the characters. Cecily, the English narrator, is the daughter of man recently evicted from his home after his brother (the rightful heir to the property) returns from the Crusades. Hoping to start a new life for himself and his daughter, Cecily and her father travel to Wales which has been recently subjugated to the King of England and who is offering loads of incentives to Englishmen willing to move there and help keep the peace between the natives and the new arrivals. From what I can tell of the class system during this period of history, Cecily and her father are nobles. Gwenny, as a servant, is of the lowest class (actually lower than the lowest because she is Welsh on top of it all.) But more on Gwenny in a bit. Cecily is privileged and quite spoiled. She doesn't just think she is better than those of lower classes, she knows she is. But I have to say, no matter how much I disliked most of the things she does (many things not just unkind, but absolutely cruel and inhumane) her voice drew me in,  because she is sarcastic, witty and clever. Were it not for those attributes, it would be almost impossible to feel anything for her character, especially in the beginning of the book. Cecily's got a sense of humor, and it comes across in her narration. Try as I might not to like the girl, I can't. I am sympathetic to her circumstances, motherless and missing her profoundly, wanting more than anything to be able to return to her childhood home where all the memories of her mother originate. I have sympathy for her in that even though she is of the upper classes, she's still looked down on by others in the village with higher stations. And I feel for her because her only hope of happiness is finding a respectable husband. All of these things make me pity Cecily. But it's her superior attitude and total disdain for others I dislike. And most of all it's her complete ignorance that makes my stomach turn.

And then there is Gwenny. Gwenny is Welsh, and whereas she was once heir to the house that Cecily and her father now live in, she is merely a servant now. What little wages she receives barely feed her and her dying mother. Her brother Griffin can not keep work, and the money they both are able to save is eaten up when the English tax collector comes calling. The land is in the middle of a drought, and the taxation is so severe that those Welsh that weren't killed in battle when the English invaded are now slowly starving to death. To say that Gwenny is angry is an understatement. But most of all she is filled with an enormous desire for vengeance. For Gwenny and her countrymen, every day is a trial to survive. And as a woman, life is even harder and more frightening. It is absolutely repulsive what Gwenny and the other women must endure at the hands of the English men. There's one thing I can say, be prepared when you read this, because J. Anderson Coats holds no punches. This may be a work of fiction, but it based on real events that once took place. It's raw, unfiltered and brutal at times, but that is part of what makes this such a compelling read.

If you haven't figured it out already, things come to a head between the English and the Welsh, tables are turned and wake up calls ensue for both girls. I won't give away any details but both Cecily and Gwenny are forced to open their eyes and discover their own ignorance and misconceptions. But perhaps the most extraordinary thing that Coats accomplishes with this book is that by story's end I came to realize that these two girls, for all their many differences, are more alike than I thought possible. And in the end it's no longer easy to tell which person is wicked and which person is just. Because those parts of human nature live in all of us, whether we admit it or not.

This examination of human nature through character development is the strongest element in The Wicked and the Just, but the reason this book didn't score a 5 star rating is because while I loved reading about Cecily and Gwenny,  it  reads more like a fictionalized historical recount. Nothing really happens story-wise. There is no real climax in the book, and there is no real resolution. I am left wondering what happens to these characters (and I don't believe this is a planned series), even though the author writes in closing a brief account of what happened after the book's real life events took place.

I don't mean to make it sound like it's written like a history text book, it's not. Coats is a strong writer, and if this was just a dry textbook account of the skirmishes between the English and Welsh, you would have lost my interest at page one. But I find it hard to classify the book. It's not a textual account but it's not a fictional story with standard plot lines either. The Wicked and the Just is something between the two.

There is also no romance per se. There are suggestions of romance, but nothing concrete. I'm a romantic girl,  and I have to say I would have enjoyed the book a little more had that been included.

Regardless, The Wicked and the Just captured my attention, fed my imagination and left me thinking about Cecily, Gwenny, Griffin and the others in the story for days after I read it. It made me more curious about the history of the Welsh people and, after reading Coats' beautiful descriptions, the land itself. Finally it made me curious about the author, and made me want to read more. This is Coats debut, but I hope it won't be her last. I'd love to see where she takes readers next.

4/5 Stars

Cover Thoughts

I think the cover of the book is gorgeous. It almost sparkles and I love the font. I'm not sure if it's Cecily or Gwenny pictured on the front but, as in the story, the two are so similar it's often hard to tell the difference between them:)

Check out J. Anderson Coats website here.

Check out what some other reviewers had to say about The Wicked and the Just here:

Oh, For the Love of Books!
My Guilty Obsession
The Readventurer

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  1. Oh I think I might really like this one! I was anxious to see your review and now I cant wait to get my hands on it!

    1. Are you a history buff Candace? If so, this one will definitely be something you like:)

  2. I love your review! I definitely agree with you on Cecily's personality. I should have hated her, but I just...didn't. Her pity parties and sarcasm definitely kept me interested. I also liked that the author delved into human nature but I just couldn't get past the lack of story! I think I'll pick it up again...eventually. But even though I love historical fiction, I still like a story. This read more like a textbook. I really interesting textbook, but a textbook nonetheless. Great review though! You're definitely making me want to pick it up again eventually :D

    All the best ♥
    Mackenzie @ Oh, For the Love of Books!

    1. I know how frustrating it is to DNF a book, especially one you have been looking forward to for so long. Thanks for dropping by and commenting.I hope your reading luck has swung back around in a more positive way:)

  3. As always Heather your review captivated me :) This doesn't sound like my type of book (the brutalness and all) but I definitely like the cover!! It sounds like a great book that I would recommend to historical fiction lovers :) Thanks for the review!!

    1. You are most welcome! It's probably not for everyone, but history fans will dig it:)

    2. Love the word choice "dig it" made me smile =)

  4. I do like historical fiction, so I'll add this to my list!

    1. It's a quick read too, you'll breeze through it in no time.Let me know when you do so we can discuss:)


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